American Institutions Are Strong Enough to Handle a Muddled Transition


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 11/17/20


Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Outgoing President Donald Trump does not appear close to conceding the election. But for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, it doesn’t matter whether the president goes through a full cycle of election grief before he leaves office. Court case after court case challenging the election results has failed. The final state tallies will be official within weeks. And Republican leaders in key states have assured the public that there will be no switching of Electoral College votes against the demonstrated will of the electorate. 

Nothing Trump does will stop the arrival of a new administration. A career federal service, maligned and weakened over the past four years, will have prepared for the arrival of a new administration. That is the hallmark of a functioning democracy—institutions prevail.

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The great American experiment in democracy will survive Trump’s best efforts to end it


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 11/2/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

With only days left before the US presidential election, fears are growing of voter intimidation, drawn-out legal challenges to vote counts, and even the potential for political violence. These concerns are usually reserved for struggling democracies around the world, not a country long considered the leader of the free world.

That leadership position has been thrown into question as the US has withdrawn from a number of multilateral engagements and favoured a myopic nationalism rather than the internationalist orientation the country had followed since the end of World War II. There’s a lot more at stake in this election than just who becomes the next president. Democracy itself is on the ballot.

In far too many places, political freedom is an exception rather than the norm. Over the past 14 years, it has been declining according to Freedom House research. The reasons are many, but the results are the same – the rule of law is weakening in high-, medium-, and low-income countries around the world. The US is not immune to this trend.

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How China’s growing power and ambitions are burning the bridges of global cooperation


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 9/27/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

In the past few weeks, China’s decades-long relationship with Europe has taken a significant hit as negotiations stalled over investment and human rights issues. Chinese fighter jets have flown dangerously close to Taiwan. And talks with India over their border dispute have reached a stalemate after the deaths of soldiers on both sides.

Add to this the continued trade war with the United States and a clear trend emerges. At no time since China’s reform and opening up that began over four decades ago has its relations with the world been so strained. Beijing has alienated practically every major power in the Asia-Pacific – JapanAustralia and India – as well as most of Western Europe, Canada and the US all at the same time.

China’s growing ambitions are bumping up against its neighbours with increasing frequency, calling into question attempts by Beijing to establish itself as the leader of a new multilateral order. The backlash to this more aggressive approach has begun, and will only increase if Beijing continues down this path. China will increasingly feel more isolated, not by any grand Washington containment strategy, but by its own policies.

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America’s Trade Chief Has a Bold New Plan. U.S. Companies, Beware


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 9/14/20


Anna Moneymaker/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Robert Lighthizer has set out a bold new plan for U.S. trade policy that, if implemented, could effectively end America’s leadership in promoting open, free, and fair trade. In a recent op-ed, the U.S. trade representative railed against the World Trade Organization and trade deals. Some of his themes are familiar; others new. But unless Washington stops trying to make the entire world follow its rules rather than working toward consensus, U.S. companies are going to face tough times abroad. If “America First” continues to mean that America goes it alone, U.S. consumers will eventually feel the pain as well. 

Lighthizer’s new approach to trade policy takes particular aim at bilateral trade deals that he says “discriminate in favor of preferred trading partners.” That’s an odd argument to make considering the administration has pursued new bilateral deals, including one with the United Kingdom that has stalled while London attempts to leave the European Union, and initiated negotiations with Kenya in July. The White House has also relied on a bilateral deal with Japan to gain access for U.S. beef exports. I asked the U.S. trade representative’s office to comment on these inconsistencies and other issues raised by Lighthizer’s op-ed, but they did not respond. 

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Right to vote: US must lead by example in presidential election to showcase its democracy


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 8/31/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

It’s not every day that the US Postal Service becomes national, even international, news.Mail delivery has never been a major global foreign policy issue. But in the pandemic year of Covid-19, delivery of mail-in ballots for the November US presidential election has turned into a serious concern. With social distancing still a priority, many voters are expected to avoid going to polling stations and instead rely on mailing their ballots.

The consequences of a botched election go well beyond Washington. Whoever occupies the White House in 2021 will be overseeing the lasting effects of the pandemic, a rapidly accelerating climate change crisis, and shifting great-power geopolitical risks. Even the perception of an illegitimate US election will further erode what’s left of Washington’s global influence.

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US’ tougher stance on the South China Sea is part of Trump’s re-election campaign

This op-ed originally appeared on 7/20/20.

The United States finally said what the world already knew: China’s claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. It took four years after an international tribunal ruled on the issue. This raises the question why, with only six months left in the current administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made this declaration now?

Two reasons stand out – US President Donald Trump campaign’s attempt to bolster its tough-on-China credibility ahead of the upcoming presidential election, and galvanising the growing regional distrust of China to reassert the US as a regional power. If Beijing misreads either of these powerful political forces and provokes a confrontation, its geopolitical overreach will face a backlash that has long been brewing in the region.With US election season in full swing, Trump attack ads air daily in battleground states with hundreds of millions of dollars in play. The campaign has decided to use China as one of several lines of attack against Trump’s opponent Joe Biden. It’s going to be a tough sell.

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Authoritarian Spin Could Derail the Global Economy


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 6/30/20


A truth, rarely discussed, about the geopolitical risks posed by authoritarian leaders is that they are especially bad at managing crises. The U.S., Brazil, Russia, and India have the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world. It is no coincidence that they are led each by populists who practice or at least admire authoritarianism. These leaders’ nativist political instincts have led to disastrous results as the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies and the global economy spirals deeper into recession. Without a scientific breakthrough, this populist wave may intensify as leaders exploit virus-driven outrage and inequity, people struggle to recover, and experts are pushed further to the periphery of policy.

Sergey Guneev/Getty Images

The disparity between authoritarian hubris and expert advice shows up in the data. Taken together, these four countries are home to one-quarter of the world’s population, but nearly 50% of the global coronavirus cases. That shouldn’t be a surprise since coronavirus denial has been front and center of their policies. They have downplayed or outright ignored the dangers of its spread and extolled their own knowledge over the advice of experts—a classic authoritarian move according to researchers who study this phenomenon. 

Early on U.S. President Donald Trump said the virus would simply disappear. He refuses to wear a mask despite his own staff and Secret Service becoming ill and has held rallies in Oklahoma and Arizona, where cases are spiking. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also politicized wearing a mask and held rallies with little regard for the chaos it would cause. Asked about rising infections and deaths, he said, “So what?” And he fired two health ministers who had warned of the crisis. [continued]

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China Guards the Keys to an Empire of Debt


This commentary originally appeared in Barron’s on 5/6/20


The coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and worst in political leadership. For China, it’s the latter. While first to confront the disease, the government initially failed to inform the global community, preferring instead to hoard supplies and information. By the time authorities gave the World Health Organization access to the country, it was too late. The virus had already spread around the world.

This pattern of official obfuscation also applies to China’s international lending practices. For years, the details of China’s bilateral deals have been closely guarded, including the terms of repayment and collateral required. Now developing countries that were eager for easy money are asking how they can possibly make debt payments amid a public health emergency. They’re not hearing answers.  

The Covid-19 outbreak will cripple their economies. And while the Chinese government wants to be seen as taking the lead in the global response to the pandemic, no amount of medical supplies will assuage concerns over economic collapse.

Many of these countries face an impossible choice: Enforce a lockdown they cannot afford to stem the spread, or remain open to sustain business activity that could drive further infections. Either way, they won’t be able to pay what they no longer have.

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China’s Loans at Risk as Coronavirus Spreads to Developing Countries

Illustration: Craig Stephens


A looming crisis in the developing world has caught the attention of major international lenders, including the Group of Seven, Paris Club and the World Bank, with a notable addition – China. For years, Beijing has resisted efforts to coordinate its lending with international financial institutions. And yet consensus has formed that temporary financial relief is essential for developing countries facing a mountain of debt, the spreading Covid-19 pandemic, and an impending global recession.

The larger G20 group of advanced economies, which China is a part of, have agreed to a debt moratorium for poorer countries in economic distress. Some finance ministers even insisted that their support for the relief package, which halts both principal and interest payments through at least 2020, was contingent on China agreeing to join in.

This is a sign, albeit limited, that not only is Beijing considered on par with the wealthy and powerful of the world, but that its interests coincide with a coalition of developed nations – at least for the moment. If China breaks ranks and pursues its own narrow interests, when many of these loans eventually default, it will lose the status it has long sought by developing its global soft power.

China has long preferred often secretive bilateral deals over coordinated lending efforts. These deals have included loose standards for projects of dubious utility, including transportation projects in Pakistan, Montenegro and Kazakhstan. National assets have been used as collateral. Actual loan amounts have often not been disclosed, making credit assessments by international institutions like the World Bank inaccurate.

This global lending spree, most recently through the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, are largely responsible for the developing world’s recent economic dislocation.


The full commentary is available here


Chaotic White House Response to Coronavirus Hinders Effective Policy



This is where we are in the United States of America. The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc on major cities across the country. No one knows if it’s too late to stop the worst of the tsunami-like wave to come. By the end of March, if current rates of growth do not drop significantly, the US will have more than double China’s official total.US President Donald Trump has now called himself a “wartime president”. He signed into force the Defence Production Act, which gives him broad authority to direct private-sector production of critical supplies and set prices to combat price gouging. He has chosen not to use it, and that will put frontline medical workers at risk of illness and ultimately cost lives.

It is high time he applied the leverage of the federal government to fight this crisis with all the power it possesses. Hospitals are already begging the public for medical supplies and overpriced equipment is busting budgets.

New York City, which alone has over 10,000 cases, is on the verge of running out already. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has highlighted the crushing effects of states competing with each other to purchase supplies. N95 masks that are essential protective equipment now cost US$7 each, up from US$4 only days ago and a mere 85 cents before the crisis began.


The full commentary is available here